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Editorial
The Quagmire of Higher Education
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According to an earlier media report an expected outcome of the increased cooperation between India and the United States consequent to the visit of Barack Obama was the finalization of plans for American universities to set up business in India. The coming of American universities to India is an event awaited by many middle-class families in the country which cannot yet afford to send their children to the United States to acquire college degrees.
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With the boom in higher education in India, the stream of new engineering and medical colleges, the institutions advertising themselves on the small screen, the new ‘deemed universities’ and the education surveys conducted, it is apparent that higher education is the preoccupation of most Indians in the middle to higher income brackets. Since so many people across India are preoccupied with the subject, it may be worthwhile to take stock of what higher education has come to mean today and look at some of the issues involved. Higher education in India today is almost synonymous with technology and business, with the social sciences and the humanities apparently not having the same consequence. Education is also such a lucrative business today that politicians, industrialists and heads of religious sects all over India have been promoting educational institutions.
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Until well into the 1960s India had an efficient university system but the universities are in a sorry state today. One of earliest causes may have been the founding of elite institutions in the 1950s and thereafter, with the intention of producing the best scientists and technologists in double quick time. Science and technology were specific concerns of the Nehruvian era – because of India’s preoccupation with modernity – and the humanities were treated more matter-of-factly. The temptation to create a new institution instead of administering and improving an old one are always considerable – one starts with a clean slate, as it were, without having to sort out the existing problems. This is much like someone with bad handwriting cherishing a new exercise note book and making resolutions that he or she will begin afresh. But the clean new pages are soon scribbled upon and rendered untidy, when it becomes tempting to open yet another new exercise note book.
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Putting the metaphor aside, new national institutions may be tempting prospects to those placed at their helm, often people who have been successful internationally but not nearly as celebrated as they are by the political establishment in India. They have the freedom to implement their visions; they can select the best talent available and they get the best students. The major difficulty is perhaps that the talent pool they can draw from is limited. Hence, in the decades after the 1960s, the gains of the elite institutions were losses for the universities, specifically the undergraduate and graduate courses which are the ‘catchment area’ for talent.
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A key issue here is whether the research institution in which no teaching is done at the graduate and undergraduate levels represents a viable model. ‘Freeing’ scientists from the responsibility of teaching is, at best, a dubious advantage. In the first place, this effectively distances generations of students from the highest thinking in the field, confining them to instruction at much lower levels of ideation. Secondly, teaching perhaps benefits the teacher as much as it does the student because one’s ideas need constantly to be tested and validated through articulation. One also anticipates that professional rivalry in research will check scientists from testing out their ideas with their peers – for fear of discouraging responses or having the ideas stolen. Since trying out new ideas on students generates fewer apprehensions, perhaps having better research facilities within the university system would have been preferable to having institutions intended solely for research. What is really unfortunate here is that there was no reason to ‘experiment’. Data was available on how to go about building a strong educational system. In the ‘research university system’ introduced in Germany in the 18th or 19th Century, the idea was to produce research by combining the experience of the older people with the youthful zest of the students. This model was so successful that the Americans adopted it a few decades later.
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Since the universities appear doomed, private education has been allowed out of the same intellectual resources and autonomous ‘deemed universities’ have been created. Tuition fees have shot up abruptly five or six-fold, which does not imply better education. Funded by the exorbitant fees, private institutions are investing in real estate, buying up land and constructing huge edifices but doing little else. Strangely enough, while the money might also have gone to acquire books, there is little evidence that the libraries have grown more comprehensive. Spurious courses are being offered and a popular one is ‘bio-technology’ in which the old botany textbooks are being fortified with material downloaded from the net. Syllabi have also become very ambitious but there are few teachers capable of teaching the supplementary material. It is possible to get away with teaching irrelevant material perhaps because society has little direct use for what is being taught. The problem created by designing syllabi far above the teachers’ capacity to teach is solved through complicity between teacher and student – what cannot be taught will not be tested. This is rendered possible because it is the ambition of the parents – who pay good money – that drives students to college while the students themselves are preoccupied only with marks and grades. On paper, of course, everything looks extremely impressive.
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One may expect much of the same experience to become magnified when the American universities enter India. Their fee structure will be higher than anything seen here but, rather than provide resources of their own, they may be expected to draw from the intellectual capital within India. If reports are to be believed, the Ivy League universities are less anxious to enter than unfamiliar ones – perhaps those promoted by entrepreneurs of Indian origin. And all that these American universities will perhaps offer is a degree branded in America without the attendant visa difficulties, the half-yearly airfares or the uncertainties of an alien milieu. Reports also suggest that the Americans most eager to do business with India in the field of education are from the business schools. The surprising thing about business schools is that while they draw the brightest talents, their only role is strategic and intended to maximize efficiency and gain – which was never traditionally the purpose of education. When their strategies result in ruination for millions – as happened in the financial meltdown and the sub-prime crisis – the schools lose none of their luster. There is little evidence that students from management institutes in India are better ‘managers’ and where they are really useful is perhaps in lubricating the interface between Indian and global business.
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The government-run engineering and management institutions in India are still the most glamorous and, for some reason, private competition has been unable to make a dent in their appeal. The reason is perhaps that they have an impeccable record for fairness in their selection of candidates and – regardless of the intrinsic value of the skills they inculcate – the students they get are often the brightest. But, in the recent past, it is evident that the IIT system has, at least, been ‘cracked’ by private enterprise. There are now tutorial institutions which make it their business to saddle winners for the IIT race, many students taking a year or two off to prepare. But if the institutions pride themselves on getting the brightest, should they not outwit a tutorial system which creates robots? Some of India’s most celebrated business leaders are from the IITs but one wonders if a study has been made to determine the long-term success rate of those passing out in the past decade or two.
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Another issue is whether the indifference to public education at the primary and secondary levels will not influence the talent pool available. The HRD ministry is justly proud of the government-run engineering and management institutions but is that any reason for so much attention being lavished on them in policy pronouncements? By Kapil Sibal’s own admission only around 2.5% of schoolchildren pursue higher education in India but the HRD Ministry appears to be giving a substantially larger proportion of its attention to it. Primary education is nonetheless still being attended to because a report says that with the passage of the Right to Education Act, the expenditure on primary education is estimated at Rs 70,000 crores per year. But the dissimilarity in the attitude towards higher and primary education is significant. This appears to be that while attention is given to issues in higher education, primary education is regarded generally in terms of outlay. What appears to be happening is that the outlay for primary education is only going into civil construction activity because the pass rate in examinations has declined. There are government-run primary and secondary schools in Bangalore in which the matriculate pass rate has been zero percent for the past 25 years. Considering that students are being marked more liberally, this means that not so long ago, children from government schools were taught so much better that some actually passed! It will be interesting to discover where the funds allotted for primary education are going because it is making little difference. Students have to be coaxed into schools through mid-day meals but there are accounts that when the food is edible (which is often the case because of private initiatives), much of it goes into the houses of government servants. Gradually, school education in public institutions is also being associated only with raising the literacy level. If we consider that many of the best minds in India once got free education, this means that free or inexpensive education as a means of producing talent has been discounted. Only one step from this is the conclusion that cheaper education has been deliberately brought to this state in order to facilitate private education as a business. ‘Human resources’ is a term that acknowledges that the nation’s resources at all economic levels need to be marshaled. Has the HRD ministry considered the possibility that after improving public primary and secondary education to whatever level possible, state-of-the-art artisanal training could be made available so that we have better carpenters, metal worker, plumbers, electricians and textile and leather workers instead of only more managers?
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Formal education is only one aspect of higher learning and informal education needs to be facilitated. Those in culture who are infused with the spirit of nationalism are apt to pronounce that India is second to none in its intellectual achievements. But have they considered the condition of our public libraries? Bangalore once had a series of public libraries (‘city central libraries’), with the central one (the ‘State Central Library’) being ancient but the others being set up around the 1970s. While the city central libraries were once well-stocked with reference books of high quality, a recent visit revealed that the reference section now contains only bound copies of competition magazines and quiz /general knowledge books. Even more shocking is the revelation that during a recent building renovation exercise, the card catalogue at the State Central Library was misplaced. By all accounts the loss is a permanent one. Since the library has no record of the books in its possession and the books are in disarray, this effectively means that the entire library has been lost. The only way out is for the employees to take a physical inventory of the books in the library, list all of them one by one and computerize the data. Given the level of efficiency prevailing, it is easier to imagine the entire collection of books disappearing than such a task being undertaken.
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In this midst of this quagmire, the only initiative the State takes is to create newer institutions – usually because of the persuasive skills of a few visionaries. But once these visionaries pass on, the issue is not only how these institutions will fare on their own but also whether other visionaries will not appear to create yet newer institutions, leading to the abandonment or stagnation of these ones.
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